08/16/2011 02:48 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2011

Stealing The Spotlight: Art Thefts Of 2011 (PHOTOS)

The year 2011 has already seen an unprecedented number “art steals” making headlines - and we’re not referring to bargains on the auction house floor. The FBI estimates that the black market for stolen art is worth a staggering $6 billion a year, and it is #4 (under financial crime) on Interpol’s rank of the most serious criminal activity - after terrorism, organized crime, and drugs. When MutualArt interviewed Art Loss Register chairman Julian Radcliffe last November, he stated there were 250,000 items in the database and this number “grows continually at a rate of some 10,000 per annum.”

Continue reading after the slideshow.

This year it seems the most prevalent cases deal with artworks looted by the Nazis, involve heists where the art is literally snatched off the walls, or are accidental discoveries by police investigating other crimes. As for the most pilfered artist: Picasso (surprise) tops the list for looters; as of November, he had the highest number of registered stolen works on ALR’s database.

Without further ado, here is MutualArt’s list of the biggest “steals” in the spotlight this far. Here’s hoping we won’t have to add to this list, unless of course it means the capture of more fugitive war criminals (see Serbia, below).

A Taste for Picasso
Apparently, the theft of a 1965 Picasso drawing from the Weinstein Gallery on July 5th may be just a bad case of Kleptomania or OCD, causing the afflicted to don dark glasses (but no socks) and pilfer high-end art. And while Mark Lugo’s lawyer claims that his client’s alleged crimes are the work of someone exhibiting compulsive behavior and not “an art thief who is sophisticated enough to fence a Picasso,” others - like the San Francisco police department - beg to differ. Lugo was arrested for the theft after video footage revealed a man matching his description walking down the street carrying a framed artwork under his arm. Sure, that’s not too incriminating....but then how did the work in question find its way to his apartment? Upon raiding his New Jersey home, police found not only the stolen $275,000 Tete de Femme (pictured left) but also a veritable mini-museum of stellar artworks, including another Picasso piece reported stolen from the William Bennet Gallery. Unsurprisingly, all of the other artworks found at “Gallery Lugo” had been plundered from various institutions, all within the past month. Among the trove was Fernand Leger’s 1917 painting "Composition aux element mecaniques," snatched from New York’s infamous Carlyle hotel and worth an estimated $350,000. Lugo, who intends to plead not guilty, is being held on a $5 million bail. Whether he’s a clever thief or simply a compulsive collector, there is one thing about the suspect that’s not up for debate: this Sommelier has taste.

Picasso’s his Electrician
Everyone loves Picasso, it seems, from big-time collectors to wine tasters to electricians. And Picasso really liked his electrician, enough to bequeath an entire collection of previously unknown works to the man who controlled the lights. At least that’s what Pierre Le Guennec and his wife Danielle are stating. The elderly French couple garnered international press attention last year when they revealed an unseen hoard of 271 works by the celebrated artist - which they claim Picasso bequeathed to them as “a gift.” Le Guennec was Picasso’s electrician and the vast cache of “Picasso presents” found at his home had been sitting in his garage for nearly 40 years. While many of the works come from a single notebook, there are several cubist collages and a watercolor from the artist’s Blue Period, estimated at $86 million, and that’s the low estimate (the high estimate is $115 million). Sound suspicious? The Picasso administration, which oversees the artist’s estate and is directed by his son Claude, doesn’t believe the couple’s story either. A French court later agreed, and the couple have since been indicted “on suspicion of harboring stolen art.” According to the courts, the works in question disappeared during the turbulent time following Picasso’s death, before an official inventory could be taken. Maybe they’re right - after all, $115 million-plus seems a little steep for fixing some faulty wiring. Perhaps if it had been the artist’s car and Le Guennec was a mechanic....

Team of Thieves in Toronto
Some activities are better enjoyed with friends: tennis, bowling, poker...and according to a surveillance video from Canadian Fine Artsin Toronto, large-scale robberies! Police responding to an alarm at the gallery in July were shocked to discover that 11 paintings were missing, estimated at nearly $400,000. Video footage revealed multiple assailants who forced their way into the back room of the venue, where they set off alarms as they ripped the paintings - frames and all - from the walls. The fact that the thieves went straight for the most valuable works led police to believe the burglars were professionals familiar with the art world. Some of the works seized were painted by the celebrated Canadian artists known as the ”Group of Seven,” including J.EH. MacDonald, Alexander Y. Jackson (Les Eboulements, pictured above), Alfred J. Casson, Frederick J. Varley and Frank H. Johnston. Police have yet to examine the video of the heist in detail, but will certainly comb it for clues in the following days. While there are currently no suspects, the thieves will have a hard time selling any of the stolen works due to the publicity of the case. As one appraiser noted, "You're taking a major hit if you're selling a stolen piece of artwork. There really isn't anywhere to sell them, unless it was a made-to-order kind of theft."

Con Caught on Camera
The belief that prison can rehabilitate criminals takes a hit this time. Case in point: Calvin Gonzalez, who unsuccessfully tried to get away with nabbing a $225,000 painting by abstract-expressionist master Franz Kline from a Manhattan Gallery in May. Gonzalez has a record of prior arrests and jail time, mostly for offenses such as grand larceny and drug possession. On the day of the theft, he reportedly wandered around the gallery, admiring the wrap works of artist Salvatore Scarpitta whose paintings were being exhibited, before moving on to Franz Kline’s pieces. After grabbing the Kline 1955 canvas Black Ink (pictured below) and stuffing it into a bag, Gonzalez simply walked out of the gallery. Oddly enough, the staff didn’t realize the painting was missing until well after Gonzalez had calmly left the scene. Once again, surveillance video was the key factor in revealing the thief, who was arrested two days later for felony grand larceny; he’s now being held at Rikers Island without bail. Something tells us the only “black ink” Calvin Gonzalez will be seeing anytime soon is the number on his prison uniform. Silly Calvin, the camera is always rolling!

He Can’t Help It: French Art Addict
He’s not a thief, he’s an art addict! In April, notorious art-napper Stephane Breitwieser was charged with several new crimes after numerous old master paintings were found in his French home - 28 works, to be exact, with two reportedly stolen from German museums in 2007. Police found another stolen work the next day, a School of Bruegel miniature worth an estimated $75,000. To be fair, a love of art does run in the family, as Stephane is a descendant of the Alsatian painter Robert Breitwieser. Unfortunately, this appreciation for art doesn’t extend to his mother who, in a 2001 attempt to help her son escape his crimes, tossed around 100 works worth several million dollars into a canal (though most were eventually recovered). Breitwieser, a self-proclaimed “passionate collector,” is famous for his thieving talents but not his artistic capabilities, and faces charges for handling stolen goods. His sticky-fingered antics are far- reaching: he originally gained notoriety in 2002 after admitting to having stolen hundreds of works from museums, castles, and palaces throughout Europe. He was sentenced to four years in jail by a Swiss court in 2003; in France, he received in 2005 a three-year sentence with ten months suspended. Charges for his most recent crimes are still being hashed out between French, German and Belgian courts. Our advice to Breitwieser would be to find a creative outlet to replace his addiction - maybe painting?

A $3.6 Million Traffic Ticket
The Italian police officers who stopped a speeding vehicle near Milan in May wound up having to do much more than write a speeding ticket. Not only was the driver license-less, but both he and his passenger had criminal records. Upon searching the vehicle, the officers discovered a stolen painting by Giorgio Morandi worth nearly $300,000 in the trunk. Eventually investigators traced more clues to an apartment on the French border, where they found 12 more stolen artworks - including two Mao paintings by Andy Warhol, a 1935 Léger work and several other pieces by artists such as Balthus and Ghiringhelli. The collection, which was listed on Interpol’s list of stolen artworks, belongs to Paola Folon (widow of Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon) and was taken from her house nearly five years prior. The total estimated worth of the cache is a cool $3.6 million, quite a bit more than the fine for a speeding ticket. Needless to say, the driver and his accomplice were promptly arrested. If anything, hopefully this will teach them to drive at a reasonable speed, if they ever get out of jail...

Stolen Altarpiece Makes Speedy Return 40 Years Later
Speaking of speed: When the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky bought a three-panel altarpiece (detail, center panel, left) from a New York gallery in 1973, they spent $38,000 on the purchase. Little did they know that the triptych was actually stolen from a villa in Italy just a few years before - along with 14 other works, with a total value of $33 million. Oops! The prime focus of the 14th century work is the center panel, which depicts the Virgin Mary and Christ Child flanked by John the Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria. The right panel shows the Crucifixion of Jesus, with the left panel depicting two saints. A scholar in Italy discovered the work’s whereabouts when he matched a photograph taken by the original owners to the piece exhibited at the museum. Now, 40 years later, the medieval masterpiece is finally heading home, after the Unites States government agreed to return the work to Italian authorities. Once the history of the triptych was revealed, Museum Director Charles Venable apologized but maintained that the museum had no way of knowing the work was stolen. "To be honest, works of art have complicated histories sometimes, particularly ones that could be very old works of art,” he said. The Speed Art Museum has since been reimbursed the full $38,000 they paid for the panel painting - but no word yet on whether the original owners will be able to claim ownership over the triptych they haven’t seen since 1971. Currently, authorities have no suspects in the villa theft.

Some of the biggest cases making headlines this year were those involving art looted in times of war. The two most notorious examples of these types of thefts are works that were taken from victims of the Holocaust and the Bosnian Genocide.

The Bosnian Genocide: Serbia
Sometimes crime does pay, especially when it leads to the capture of notorious war criminals. Such is the case of Goran Hadzic, a Serbian wartime leader indicted for crimes against humanity during the bloody war with Bosnia, who had been eluding law enforcement for fifteen years. Fast forward to July 2011: In a desperate attempt to get some cash while on the lam, Hadzic tried to sell a stolen painting attributed to 20th century figurative artist Amedeo Modigliani, believed to be worth millions. Investigators traced the work to a friend of Hadzic, which led them to the forest where the notorious war criminal was eventually captured. Perhaps the best part of the story is this: According to one expert, it is quite possible the painting is a fake. "We had suspicions about that particular painting because it was part of a large number of fakes sold to a collector," he said. But there is no mistake that the man police have captured is the genuine Hadzic, who is now awaiting sentencing for his very real crimes.

Nazi Thefts: Claims Conference Cases
Several cases made headlines earlier this year regarding art looted by the Nazis. Many of the countries in question - there are 44 total - signed in 1998 a non-binding contract that essentially ‘“agrees to seek a “just and fair solution”’ with regards to restitution to the heirs of the victims and survivors whose artworks were either stolen or forced into sale “under duress” by the Nazis during World War II. Among the countries with cases of restitution in the news are:

Austria -- a Vienna museum was told to return five Nazi-looted works to the heirs of Karl Maylander, an Austrian man who was deported to a Polish labor camp during World War II. The five drawings that once belonged to Maylander were works by Austrian figurative painter Egon Schiele, including Maedchen mit Sonnenbrille (Girl with Sunglasses) and a self-portrait entitled Eros (both pictured below). An art commission tasked with returning plundered works made the recommendation to Vienna’s Albertine to return the drawings to Maylander’s family; the museum has yet to follow the ruling.

Germany -- Perhaps one of the strangest cases of restitution is that of Thomas Hemer, the heir who is fighting against restitution for the works that belonged to his grandfather, German Egyptologist Georg Steindorff. Steindorff sold his collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts to his beloved Leipzig University where he worked. In May, a Berlin court decided that the sale was conducted under duress and therefore invalid, prompting the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany to remove Steindorff’s artifacts from the museum. Hemer disagrees with the ruling and wants the museum to keep the collection, saying that to take it away “would destroy an institute that my grandfather cherished....He was this museum.” The Claims Conference filed a claim in 1990 before anyone was aware of Hemer’s existence, and it now has legal ownership of the collection. Defying convention, the Conference is overriding the wishes of Steindorff’s heir and will ultimately decide what is to be done with the works. For the sake of Hemer, Leipzig University and the students who study there, many are hoping the collection will remain at the institute, as Steindorff intended.

Netherlands -- At the end of June, the German government stated it will return eight old master paintings that belonged to Dutch Jews before the Nazis came to power. The works were later seized by the communist regime in the 1950s, as the then-owners were East-Germans who fled the country. The paintings to be handed over include oin masterpieces by 17th century greats Jan Steen and Philips Wouwermans, previously owned by Jewish art dealers who were forced to liquidate their assets due to the Nazi occupation. Their heirs are entitled to financial compensation for the loss, although the actual amount has yet to be revealed.
Belgium -- A Belgian panel recently rejected a claim filed by the heirs of a Jewish banker, who sold his 1914 Oskar Kokoschka piece Portrait of Ludwig Adler (pictured left) during the Nazi era. The Belgian city of Ghent owns the painting and although the original owner did sell the work before fleeing to Africa with his wife, the panel stated there is no evidence to prove that the sale was made under duress. The panel also noted that the children of the owner did not make any attempt to claim the painting before 2004, and that the museum had bought the work legally, in good faith. “There is no identifiable ground to restitute the painting or compensate it in whole or in part,” reads the statement from the panel report. “It cannot be established that we are dealing with a forced sale.”

Written by MutualArt Staff